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The music has to be high-quality, good, interesting, original, and then it will matter to society

Evilena Protektore

Laura Polence on self-isolation’s good outcomes, a different view on concerts, music for the children and adults and creativity in other parts of life

I met Laura for the first time back in 2006 during the «Saulkrasti Jazz» festival week, and there she left quite an impression with her endless energy, positive views on life, and sense of humor in her composition. During one of the concerts, she sang her own tune with a funny title — «Why Isn’t George Eating Cheese Anymore.» It made me think about her being so multifaceted, but I didn’t get the chance to get to know her better, because soon after that she moved away to Amsterdam and since then I got to meet her only for a couple of brief moments and by accident on some jam sessions. So, time went by, and now again, she appeared in my line of sight with some exciting event — a concert program titled «Blakus» (Close) in the studio of the Latvian Radio. I have decided that finally, the time has come to invite her for a chat and find more about what she’s been up to for all these years, about her creative projects, plans for the future, and life in general. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet in person since she was already back in the Netherlands. Still, the pandemic has taught us to communicate digitally, so that is exactly what we did!

So, how’s it going?

Everything is fine! Everything is terrific, the weather here in Amsterdam is lovely today, the sun is shining, everything is right, you just have to beware of the coronavirus.

It looks like you played the concert in LR and went back home right away?

Actually, I had been staying in Riga for quite a while. I visited a bit longer to play this particular concert, but I also had other exciting Riga projects happening simultaneously. I came to stay through the summer, stayed until this last concert and then went back home. I was ecstatic to perform in Latvia; LR had organized everything nicely and gave me the freedom to do whatever I want. We had 25 or 30 listeners, and the people were polite, responsive, and full of enthusiasm.

This concert was probably special also because there’s not a lot of those happening nowadays…

Yes, I think it’s even more special to the listeners to enjoy a concert after staying home for so long in self-isolation. We all appreciated it a lot, how magical it is to be present while the music is born. Nowadays, this transition to the digital space more and more each day, and it gets harder for performing arts to survive. Artists have to be more persistent; they have to continue creating new things and remind people that it’s different when it’s live — especially for jazz music; listening to a concert in person or on the computer, phone, tablet, etc. This feeling of being there is a significant component of a full experience. So it’s fantastic that the listeners enjoyed the concert in person and not only on the internet.

What about you? Did you have any online shows?

Yes! I had several online shows here, in the Netherlands, and we weren’t allowed any audience at all. I had shows both in April and in May. It was bizarre — you play or sing a song, and then, of course, there is total silence, no response from the audience, no applause, and you’re just left there standing as if nothing happened. It’s tough. Maybe if there had been someone to moderate the concert, who would announce that there was a reaction from the audience, or to inform the songs, perhaps it would make the concert more lively, but it can’t be compared to the feelings you get during live shows when you hear and see everything and everyone, where you have a connection with the listeners.

The concerts I had were with the band I have been collaborating with for many years now. From 2014 to 2018, we did a lot of touring — went to Mexico, the USA, India, all around Europe. The band is called «SnowApple.» In the beginning, we were only three girls, but in time the trio grew into a full band of 10 musicians, and on every tour, we used to collaborate with local musicians. At some point, I realized that it is too hard for me physically to be jet-lagged at least once a month because it makes me feel neither boiled nor fried, and all my projects in Amsterdam had moved to the background, I had no time and energy left. That’s why I stopped touring in 2018, I said I needed a break, but the band continued to collaborate with pantomime artists, the same thing I have been studying in Amsterdam myself. It is exciting that you can say so much without words, but with movements and gestures instead. When the pandemic hit, «SnowApple» couldn’t tour anymore, and we decided to unite our forces again, and now we are releasing a new album! It should be out by the end of November. This album was created because no one could travel during the isolation phase, and we were motivated to put all our ideas into one pot, and it turned out very interesting and exciting. The fact that everything was prohibited during this massive lockdown, I had more motivation to work, it helped.

But I also had some composition gigs during the lockdown, I can’t really complain. All live shows had been concealed, but the composition things have come instead, and I’m happy about that. And also to record some ideas, new songs, maybe even an album in the new year, so this time had given me something positive when I suddenly had a lot of time to spare.

Wow, congratulations! Is this new album going to be with the «How Town» band?

No, «How Town» is on a break, for now, winter hibernation time [laughs], but people in both Holland and Latvia always ask about the band, they want to know if we’re going to present something new, maybe a new album or some new songs, we’ll see about that! But for now, I have written a lot of tunes that will be included in this new album, this will be a CD of songs in English, I wrote both the music and the lyrics, I collaborate with different producers and musicians, I am planning to involve the magnificent Rūdolfs Macats, but for now I’m working with a producer from Great Britain — Pat Cleaver. Pat is a very skilled musician and a brainiac, we work well together. So, I continue working and collaborating with like-minded people, this process is always live and pleasant, and that is vital, especially in jazz or original music. These people around you matter a lot when we want to do something of our own.

But judging from how rarely we get to see you back in Latvia, your main base is Amsterdam, right?

Right now, yes, but Latvia matters to me a lot, not just as a place where I was born, where I come from, but also musically; a lot of things that are happening now are pulling me back home. I currently compose music for a children’s show on Latvian Television — «Tutas Lietas» we had several concerts with this project. I am coming back to Latvia in November because we have more concerts scheduled. We have a great team there, it’s a great joy to perform to Latvian kids, and it moves me when they sing along.

Tell me, how different composing music for children is from a regular composition? Are there any special techniques?

You have to do everything from the heart, you can’t overload the songs. Usually, I receive poetry by Kārlis Verdiņš and other authors, and then I write music for the specific poems. The text usually is very melodic itself, it already has many different intonations and rhythms in it, and then I need to tell this text through a simple melody. These songs aren’t that different from the pop tunes we hear on the radio, they have a straightforward form, and the story is also easy to perceive. The show I write for has been on the air for five seasons already, and this February, we received a «Zelta Mikrofons» (Golden Microphone) award in the «Best music album for children» category. The kids love our songs! So this is one of the projects I have going on in Latvia that is long-lasting.
So, getting back to the music for adults, I have received many positive reviews after the LR concert about the folk songs’ arrangements that I did, Latvian folklore interpretation, so now I think I could do a whole set of folk songs. I could play it with Latvian musicians since this music is close, understandable in terms of language and background. I had this inspiration after the concert. I have the motivation now to work here. I will just have to wait a while since we’re getting an addition to the family, a baby is on its way!

Wow! Congratulations!

Thanks! My partner, Onno Govaert, is a local percussionist and drummer, and he is a significant and important reason I’m still in the Netherlands. The studies are over, I was almost done with my master’s degree, but then I met him and never returned home. Holland became more important because of my child; having a baby here makes it feel even more like home! The only downside to life now is that when I come to Latvia in November, I’ll have to spend two weeks in quarantine…

All in all, this is a challenging and horrible time for everyone. Although now, when the concerts are so few, they somehow mean more to the musicians, reflecting on the audience, they feel the level of importance and readiness of the performance.

There were many different articles about the changes that the music industry will suffer because of all that is happening. Any thoughts on that?

Well, some concert venues can use only a quarter of their capacity, maybe even less, which is very hard on the business; small venues will not survive. Bars that used to admit up to 30 people — how many can they admit now? And I think we have to continue doing things and create solutions that will allow the music to survive because the government doesn’t really help. I chose this route because music has always been a central part of my life; I need to perform and be on stage. But the music itself has to be good, high-quality, engaging, original because it plays a crucial role in society’s development. We have to continue creating this cultural space, we have to make art ourselves, and we have to support the artists that surround us, to attend concerts, by the music and merchandise produced by these artists. It means that we have to work harder. It’s not like we all are suddenly going to go and become yoga instructors or IT specialists. I hope we will be able to stay creative and persistent.

We can also discuss the fact that some people think that the musicians aren’t able to prove to the government that their music is worth something; maybe they think their music is empty and has no message. It was a popular topic worldwide — if art is not indispensable, what would the people do during the lockdown? Imagine being home with no books to read, no movies to watch, no music to listen to, and even your couch has been designed by someone, and your chair. Every single thing that surrounds a person is a result of creative thought, and that means art.

Yes, people have not only their physical needs but also their esthetic wants need to be satisfied…

But I also think that artists need to explain why this support has to be given to them. Are you able to explain why your idea, your goal is so important? Can you describe your new compositions and concert programs, and what will society gain from them? That is a way to communicate about that. Or you can show everyone the results of your work, how good everything is done, how creative and professional, that is a better way to prove something to someone. I think there’s no reason for me to complain; I didn’t suffer much during the pandemic, I am lucky to have different collaborations and projects, and I don’t think everything is that bad. I don’t believe that we’re at such a low that we have to stop making music. It’s the opposite — I think we have to continue fighting.